Counting the COVID-19 orphans

By Melissa Coade

Wednesday July 21, 2021

(PranayChandra/Adobe)

Modelling from an international study has offered a minimum worldwide estimate of 1.5 million children to have lost a parent, grandparent or caregiver to COVID-19, and determined that orphans are five times more likely to have lost their fathers to the deadly virus. 

Researchers have published modelling that estimates COVID-19 resulted in the death of caregivers for 1.5 million children globally. Among this group, more than one million children lost either one or both parents during the first 14 months of the pandemic.

Lead author Dr Susan Hillis said this new generation of orphans faced profound long and short term challenges, including increased risk of disease, physical abuse and adolescent pregnancy. This was the legacy of approximately three million adult deaths worldwide, she added. 

“This [death toll] number will only increase as the pandemic progresses,” Hillis said. 

“For every two COVID-19 deaths worldwide, one child is left behind to face the death of a parent or caregiver.”

Earlier this month, the official death toll for people who had passed away from the COVID-19 virus surpassed 4 million.

Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Columbia ranked among the top five nations with the highest rates of children losing a primary caregiver to the virus. 

By April 2021 the researchers also estimated an 8.5-fold increase of newly orphaned children in India (43,139) in one month (5,091 in March). 

This is the first scientific attempt to quantify how many children have been affected by the loss of a caregiver during the COVID-19 pandemic, either directly (due to the virus) or indirectly (due to another condition that was exacerbated due to the pandemic). 

The mathematical modelling, published in The Lancet on Tuesday, used the national fertility information from 21 countries (that account for 77% of global deaths from the virus) and COVID-19 mortality statistics from March 2020 through to April 2021. This information was then extrapolated to produce global estimates and show the toll of the virus on orphans.

The dataset defined caregivers to be either a parent, custodial grandparent, or other relative responsible for the primary care of the child.

By the end of April, the modelling estimated that COVID-19 had left at least 1.1 million children without a parent or custodial parent, and 1.5 million children without a parent, custodial grandparent. The study accounted for the loss of both parents so that orphaned children were not counted twice.

Lead author Dr Juliette Unwin said that her team of international researchers suspected the modelling underestimated the true number of COVID-19 orphans. If the dataset could include additional demographic, epidemiological, and healthcare factors, she predicted many under-reported deaths would see the numbers in ‘orders of magnitude larger’.

Our study establishes minimum estimates—lower bounds—for the numbers of children who lost parents and /or grandparents,” Unwin said. 

In the months ahead variants and the slow pace of vaccination globally threaten to accelerate the pandemic, even in already incredibly hard-hit countries, resulting in millions more children experiencing orphanhood.”

The paper noted that family separation and institutionalisation were other risks orphans were likely to face, and which have a proven negative impact on children’s social, physical and mental development. 

The researchers also used the historical experience of children left without carers as a result of the Ebola outbreak and HIV, to urge governments to consider how to provide support to extended families or foster carers.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need to prioritise these children and invest in evidence-based programs and services to protect and support them right now and to continue to support them for many years into the future – because orphanhood does not go away,” Hillis said. 

Another one of the study’s authors, Professor Lucie Cluver, who is connected with both Oxford University in the UK, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, suggested parenting programs and school access were good things for governments to prioritise when assisting the orphans of COVID-19.

“We need to vaccinate caregivers of children – especially grandparent caregivers,” Cluver said. 

“And we need to respond fast because every 12 seconds a child loses their caregiver to COVID-19.”

The study identified that in almost every country, more men died from COVID-19 than women, with up to five times more children losing their fathers overall. Fathers in middle or older ages were more susceptible to the deadly virus.

Findings for the international modelling were published by lead authors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US; and UK institutions the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics’ school of public health, and the Imperial College, London’s department of mathematics.


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